MANCHESTER – “What I’ve done is revert to type. I’ve gone back to my nature.” It has taken 26 years, but Johnny Marr is finally ready to embrace his past. It is a legacy of immense weight: The five years he spent as guitarist and co-songwriter with The Smiths, the most influential and enduring British indie band of the 1980s, will forever remain the 49-year-old’s signature, and Marr has spent the intervening years since the band’s acrimonious demise deliberately “getting away from” the sound that defined both the group and an entire era.
Yet speaking from his Manchester office one crisp, early August morning, Marr is in an ebullient mood. So far, 2013 has been good to him: anointed NME magazine’s Godlike Genius in January, he has spent the subsequent months promoting “The Messenger,” his new solo album that finds Marr sounding comfortable in his own skin after coming to terms with his history.
“I think you need to do that as a person no matter where you are in your life or what your job is,” he says. “You’ve got to be OK with your past, philosophically, and be OK with how your journey has unfolded. And in my case, growing up in public and spending my adult life in front of an audience and in the pages of the music press, you have to deal with that.
“But I’m fine with my past, I’m very proud of it. I think if you’re OK with your current work it makes everything else OK.”
Since The Smiths’ split in 1987, Marr has, creatively, lived a wanderer’s existence, becoming a full-time member of groups as varied as The The, Modest Mouse and The Cribs, while lending his substantial talent — the kind that saw him voted fourth-best guitarist ever by the BBC — to artists as diverse as Paul McCartney and Pet Shop Boys.
So it was with some surprise that, if we ignore the uninspiring Johnny Marr and the Healers album “Boomslang” (which everyone else seems prepared to do), Marr announced his first solo venture. “I didn’t do it up till now because I enjoy collaborating in all the bands I’ve been in,” he says. “I’ve been in all my favorite bands, so I wanted to do something different.”
Relocating from Portland, Oregon, to his hometown of Manchester, “to be around the atmosphere where I got all my values,” Marr has written some of his best songs since the ’80s. Living in Manchester forced him to write lyrics “that move at the speed of life that people can relate to at 3 p.m. in the city. There is always stuff that stops me from getting too mellow. There is a slight uptight quality that is in the U.K., more angsty, people trying to create some color under the gray skies.”
That spiky attitude charges through “The Messenger,” with its contention that underground culture no longer exists (“it’s undeniable, it’s a fact”) and that “market forces identify anything that moves, package it and sell it. It’s very difficult to be original and feel like you’re living off the grid. But I’m not angry. And I’m not making complaints. I’m making comments. I’m not sat in the corner with the lights off saying nobody understands me.”
Musically, “The Messenger” finds Marr on reassuringly familiar ground. Full of short, lean, catchy, riff-led indie-rock, it strides with swaggering purpose, recalling the late ’70s post-punk era and, yes, The Smiths.
“Purpose is a good way of putting it. I’m by nature someone who likes singles and punchy, upbeat music. I grew up in bands that would go out and play live and deliver those songs. It’s my job to play snappy, punchy, entertaining songs with great guitar riffs.”
And those inevitable Smiths comparisons?
“It’s going to have a bit of The Smiths there because The Smiths’ music was me. That’s logical. Having a signature sound is a great thing. If you have a sound that people recognize straight away, you’re very lucky. If I play naturally, there are going to be bits that sound like The Smiths and that’s a really good thing. I’m super proud of it.”
Marr was born John Maher in Ardwick, central Manchester, on Oct. 31,1963 (changing to Marr to avoid confusion with The Buzzcocks’ drummer of the same name). Raised on the music of The Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, Chic and ’60s girl groups, upon leaving school at 15 with “the feeling anything is possible, that life is yours to own and you can do with it whatever you want,” Marr was 18 when he knocked on the door of local misfit-about-town Steven Patrick Morrissey: fueled with the ambition of forming a band that “my mates wouldn’t take the piss out of, were as cool as The Cramps, were better than The Fall and might get as big as Killing Joke,” the pair were to become one the most revered songwriting partnerships in music history.
The Smiths reconfigured the boundaries of what an indie band could be: sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were replaced by celibacy, vegetarianism and outsiderdom, with Marr’s wholly original, shimmying guitar lines the perfect accompaniment to Morrissey’s Oscar Wilde-inspired, ’50s kitchen-sink melodramatic tales of loneliness and English realism. Marr, in the grandest of understatements, agrees that “what we left behind was tidy.”
The notorious 1996 high-court case, during which bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce successfully sued Marr and Morrissey for unpaid recording and performance royalties, had seemingly irrevocably soured relations, yet endless speculation about The Smiths’ reformation refuses to fade. On occasion, Marr has (understandably) seemed uptight about the subject, so I offer an alternative view, one I genuinely believe: Many hard-core disciples of The Smiths don’t actually want to see the band get back together.
Marr lets out a surprised laugh. “Well, I don’t hear that very often,” he replies. “But I know what you mean. I am like that about the Velvet Underground. It’s a healthy way of looking at it. If people get genuinely upset and frustrated that four men that last played together 25 years ago are doing other things, then those people need to go and find a hobby. They really do. If the band only split up two years ago it might be a different matter, but 25 years? Come on. It’s a long time. If you like The Smiths, the records, photographs and memories are all plenty to be getting along with.”
The Smiths elicited devoted fandom like few bands before or since, so was Marr aware of the magnitude of his decision to pull the plug on the band?
“Yeah. I’m not stupid. And I’m not crazy or impulsive, either. I knew it was a decision I would have to live with.” For the only time, Marr becomes slightly agitated. “But I don’t acknowledge that phrase ‘pull the plug.’ That is one of Morrissey’s phrases. It’s so reductive. Because what I was doing was walking away from a life of people I loved, fans, record company, a world that I had started on my own. It was my band. It was me on my own, and I got everybody else. It was me deciding that now was the time to put a full stop to my band.” His tone softens. “Look, I know you didn’t mean anything by it. But I need to explain it’s a long way from pulling the plug. I have no regrets. Nothing has happened since the day I left that has made me think it was the wrong decision.”
Marr laughs when I ask him does he keep abreast of Morrissey’s increasingly erratic public declarations — “It’s hard to keep up, most of the things I don’t believe until I’ve heard them a few times from reliable sources. But he’s allowed to think what he wants” — but seems genuinely unconcerned.
Nor should he unduly worry. For Marr, “these are good days,” and his sixth return to Japan this weekend for the Summer Sonic music festival continues his new-found impetus.
“I like that Japanese audiences are very passionate. They’re quite restrained and don’t throw beer everywhere, but listen very intently. When you’re playing, it really matters to them. Self-respect and respect for the artist is very important, but that makes total sense. Why would you be face down in the mud when your favorite band is on? Why not stand up in a good jacket and hear the music? I have no idea if people know my new songs, but I hope they enjoy them.”
Johnny Marr plays the Sonic Stage at both the Osaka installment of Summer Sonic on Aug. 10, and the Tokyo installment on Aug. 11. One-day tickets cost ¥13,000 (Osaka) or ¥15,500 (Tokyo). For more information, visit www.summersonic.com/2013 or www.johnny-marr.com.